Republican calls urge absentee voting

Posted September 4, 2012 5:33 p.m. EDT
Updated September 5, 2012 4:27 p.m. EDT

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— Voters throughout the state are getting calls from the North Carolina Republican Party urging them to send in requests for mail-in absentee ballots. 

While some voters who have received them call the calls "confusing," Republican officials say they're merely trying to maximize the voter turnout. The GOP effort comes on the heels of a similar push three weeks ago by the conservative Americans for Prosperity. 

The Republican Party call, voiced by a male calling himself Travis, starts the line, "You should have recently received your absentee ballot application in the mail. Please sign and return your application today." It goes on to deliver standard Republican talking points for voting against President Barack Obama.

"We know in the busy world we live in, people get busy or are traveling," said Kieran Shanahan, a lawyer who serves as a spokesman for the state Republican Party. The call and accompanying effort to send mail-in absentee ballot requests is an effort to maximize the potential number of voters he said. 

"We hope Republicans and Democrats go out to vote," he said. "If everybody who is registered to vote in this state goes out to vote, we'd be happy. And we think if they're informed voters, they'll vote Republican."

Early voting gives Democrats the edge

In 2008, 70 percent of registered voters turnout out to cast ballots in the general election. But Democrats had a big edge among early voters -- both in person and via mail. Of 2.2 million votes cast before Election Day, 53.5 percent went for Obama. Among the 1.1 million absentee voters who cast straight party tickets, 62.2 percent backed Democrats. 

So this latest Republican effort can be viewed as an effort to erase that deficit from four years ago. 

Carter Wrenn, a long-time political strategist who is working for Congressional Candidate George Holding's campaign, said the party's effort is likely aimed at turning out less-reliable voters.

"If there are Republicans who have a history of sometimes voting and sometimes not voting, then you want to reach them," Wrenn said. 

Shanahan said he could not say how many voters would have received absentee ballot applications in the mail or how many people got the call. Another party spokesman didn't return emails seeking details about the calls or the strategy involved. 

However, experts outside the Republican Party say such efforts are usually built upon data that cross-references voter registration lists against consumer data or other information. That information can be used to target specific kinds of voters. 

Asked if he was certain the GOP robocalls calls went to the same people who got the mailer, Shanahan said, "That was the hope," adding that the calls and mailer would have only gone to registered voters.  

Calls yield complaints, confusion

Democratic Party officials say they've gotten complaints about the call or one like it.

Mia Day Burroughs, a school board member in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, said she received the absentee ballot call Tuesday. 

"I have no need to vote absentee," she said, saying the calls purpose was unclear. "I found it confusing." 

Nancy Moxley, a Raleigh resident who works as an elections precinct judge, said she also received a robocall about voting Tuesday, but said the script was different from what Burroughs described. 

"They started out by saying, 'We're calling to let you know that you may not be registered at this address,'" Moxley recalled. That call also had a pro-GOP message, she said, and it came from a number that could not be identified by caller ID. Moxley said she and her husband have lived at the same address for a long time and have been registered to vote for years.

Her account raises the possibility there is another Republican-backed call in the field. A spokesman for the Wake County Republican Party said he did not know of any call local Republicans might have out.

As for the N.C. Republican Party call, good government advocates said it doesn't raise any issues by itself.

Bob Phillips, director of Common Cause in North Carolina, says groups can't pre-print request forms. State law requires that for civilian, mail-in, absentee voting, voters or a close relative must submit a handwritten ballot request. So what the party is doing in this case is really mailing out instructions along with a blank, postage-paid postcard, he said. 

"It's another tool for any group to be able to use," he said. "What we don't want is to have an added step or a third party vetting where it (the application) is going," Phillips said. That would create opportunities for delays and confusion, he said. He pointed to one mailer done by the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a politically conservative group, as potentially problematic.

Three weeks ago, AFP sent out an absentee ballot flier and did a robocall similar to the recent Republican Party effort. However, voters who use the AFP postage-paid card are mailing back the ballot request to Americans for Prosperity. The group then promises to send it along to the right county board of elections. 

"With 100 different counties, it becomes extremely expensive to print 100 different mailing addresses," said Dallas Woodhouse, director of AFP in North Carolina. 

Bob Hall, director of good government advocacy organization Democracy North Carolina, calls the AFP method "troubling," saying he'd much rather see requests returned directly to local boards of elections.

Asked about the Republican's robocall, Hall said the phrasing was somewhat off. It tells voters to "sign and return your application." Like Phillips, he noted that voters must hand-write their mail-in requests, not merely sign a form. That said, assuming the Republican Party's effort is done correctly, Hall said he saw nothing wrong with the effort.

"It's just good, old get out the vote, if they do it the right way," Hall said.

Shanahan, the Republican Party's spokesman, said that was the GOP's intent.

"This is just our way of making sure that the voters have every opportunity to cast a ballot," he said.

It may also be an effort to regain what was a traditional advantage. 

Woodhouse said there is some evidence that conservative voters are more likely to use mail-in ballots while more liberal voters are likely to take advantage of in-person early voting.

Wrenn said there is something to that conventional wisdom. 

"People who vote (mail-in) absentee are usually a little older, a tad more affluent, and if you look at it demographically, they tend to vote Republican," Wrenn said. 

In 2008, the Obama campaign was able to turn some of that conventional wisdom on its head, he said. So this year, Democrats and Republicans alike will be pushing to turn out voters, whether it be through mail-in ballots or in person on Election Day.

"These are not trade secrets," Wrenn said. Rather, he said, with North Carolina's status as a swing state, neither party can afford to take anything for granted. 

Woodhouse and Shanahan said their efforts to recruit Republicans to vote via mail-in ballots were launched now because it is the form of voting available right now. Other efforts to turn out early voters and Election Day voters would follow, they said.  

Mail-in absentee voting requests are due to local boards of elections by October 30. The in-person early voting period begins October 18. Election Day is Nov. 6.